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UN launches crowdfunding campaign to prevent Yemen tanker oil spill

Environmentalists say the Safer oil tanker is guaranteed to spill without intervention and could cost $20bn to clear up
A close-up view of the FSO Safer oil tanker off the port of Ras Isa, Yemen, on 19 June 2020 (Maxar Technologies via AFP)

The United Nations has launched a crowd-funding campaign for an operation intended to prevent an ageing Yemeni oil tanker from unleashing a potentially catastrophic spill in the Red Sea, a senior official said Monday.

The UN has secured some $60m out of $80m needed to initially offload the Safer tanker which holds 1.1 million barrels of oil - four times as much oil that was spilt during the 1989 Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in the United States.

"We hope to raise $5m by the end of June," David Gressly, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for the war-hit country, told an online press briefing, adding it was an "ambitious" target. 

"Today I launched a @UN crowdfunding campaign because we urgently need funds to start the emergency operation before it is too late," he said in a subsequent Twitter post.

The decaying 45-year-old oil tanker, FSO Safer, long used as a floating storage platform and now abandoned off the rebel-held Yemeni port of Hodeidah, has not been serviced since Yemen was plunged into civil war more than seven years ago. 

It is in "imminent" danger of breaking up, the UN warned last month.

An operation to transfer its 1.1 million barrels of oil to a different vessel could begin next month, according to a website for the crowd-funding campaign, which will begin accepting donations Tuesday. 

Environmentalists warn the cost of the salvage operation is a pittance compared to the estimated $20bn it would cost to clean up a spill. 

Yemen: Decaying oil tanker in Red Sea threatens millions
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The UN has said an oil spill could destroy ecosystems, shut down the fishing industry and close the lifeline, Hodeida port, for six months. 

It has said the operation needs to be completed by the end of September to avoid "turbulent winds" that pick up later in the year. 

On Sunday, neighbouring Saudi Arabia said it would contribute $10m.

The Safer has been stranded off Ras Issa oil terminal without maintenance since 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen against the Houthi movement that ousted the internationally recognised government from the capital, Sanaa.

A truce between the rebels and the Saudi-led coalition has been in place since 2 April, coinciding with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Five days after it took effect, Yemen's Riyadh-based president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, handed his powers to a Saudi-backed leadership council tasked with holding peace talks with the rebels.